There is a dilemma that must be solved by all beings that form highly cooperative societies. This dilemma is how to obtain the benefits of cooperation without future benefits being destroyed by exploitation, such as by free riders accepting a benefit but not reciprocating. Solving the cooperation/exploitation dilemma is difficult because exploitation is virtually always the ‘winning’ strategy in the short term and can be in the longer term.

Fortunately for us, our ancestors came across solutions that have enabled us to become the incredibly successful social species we are. Evolution encoded some of these solutions in our moral sense and cultural moral codes as “morality”. The science of the last 50 years or so reveals human morality to be elements of cooperation strategies2,3,4,5,9 which have made us “SuperCooperators”6.

Cultural moralities are solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma, but they are also diverse, contradictory, and sometimes strange. Exploitation of out-groups (such as slaves, women, and “others”) has been common. Strange markers of being a moral person such as circumcision, dress and hairstyle, and food and sex taboos have been required.

Properly understood, morality is not a burden; it is an effective means for increasing the benefits of cooperation, especially emotional well-being resulting from sustained cooperation with family, friends, and community.

Could there be a universally moral subset of these “descriptively moral” behaviors (behaviors described as moral in one culture but perhaps not in others)? Even when cooperating to exploit or make war8 on out-groups, we must necessarily begin by solving the cooperation/exploitation dilemma within an in-group. To sustainably obtain these benefits of cooperation, people within this in-group “circle of moral concern”7 are not exploited.

This defines a universal moral principle: “Solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma without exploiting others in your circle of moral concern”. This principle is universal because it is a necessary component of all cultural moralities, even sub-cultures which restrict in-groups to family or friends and exploit everyone else. We can simplify this universal principle as “Increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others”, leaving “others” undefined for the moment.

This universal moral principle is an attractive reference for refining moral codes to better meet shared needs and preferences. It advocates increased cooperation which both increases material goods benefits and triggers the emotional rewards evolution encoded that motivate further cooperation. Because our moral sense was selected for by the benefits of cooperation, these cooperation strategies are innately harmonious with our moral sense. This moral principle is practical. Following common moral norms such as the Golden Rule is universally moral when the benefits of cooperation are increased. But when following such norms would not solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma, as when dealing with criminals and in wartime, following them would not be moral. Since this universal moral principle defines only moral ‘means’ (actions that increase cooperation’s benefits without exploiting others) and is silent on moral ‘ends’ (what those benefits are), societies are free to define what those benefits of cooperation ought to be and change them as circumstances change. The universal moral principle also sheds light on the morality of two human invented solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma: money economies (which efficiently enable cooperation that produces material goods) and rule of law (which effectively uses force to punish exploiters). Finally, because universally moral means are accurately tracked, this moral principle is a useful objective reference for resolving many moral disputes. (Disputes can persist about how “others”, “exploiting”, ultimate moral ‘ends’, and other implementation details are defined even among people who accept the principle.)

Individuals can benefit from this science by realizing that, properly understood, morality is not a burden; it is an effective means for increasing the benefits of cooperation, especially emotional well-being resulting from sustained cooperation with family, friends, and community. Also, cultural moral norms are best understood not as moral absolutes but as heuristics (usually reliable, but fallible, rules of thumb) for sustainably increasing the benefits of cooperation. Further, if “others” are defined as all people, then all ‘moral’ norms that exploit out-groups contradict the universal moral principle. These include economic systems based on the unfettered pursuit of self-interest leading to exploitation and prohibitions against homosexuality that exploit homosexuals as imaginary threats.

This purely science-based definition of what ‘is’ universally moral appears to be culturally useful independent of any arguments for mysterious1 sources of obligation or moral authority. However, the principle does not answer all moral questions. What benefits for acting morally ought we seek and who ought to be included in “others” who are not to be exploited? Common preferences might be “increased well-being” and “everyone”. But here objective science goes silent; answers to these questions are in the domain of moral philosophy.


  1. Blackford, Russell (2016). The Mystery of Moral Authority. Palgrave Macmillan.
    2. Bowles, S., Gintis, H. (2011). A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution. Princeton University Press.
    3. Curry, O. S. (2007). The conflict-resolution theory of virtue. In W. P. Sinnott-Armstrong (Ed.), Moral Psychology (Vol. I, pp. 251-261). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
    4. Curry, O. S. (2016). Morality as Cooperation: A problem-centred approach. In T. K. Shackelford & R. D. Hansen (Eds.), The Evolution of Morality. Springer.
    5. Harms, W., Skyrms, B. (2010) Evolution of Moral Norms. In Oxford Handbook on the Philosophy of Biology ed. Michael Ruse. Oxford University Press.
    6. Nowak, M., Highfield, R. (2011). SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. Free Press.
    7. Singer, Peter (1981) The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress. Princeton University Press.
    8. Tooby, J., and Cosmides, L. (2010). Groups in Mind: The Coalitional Roots of War and Morality, from Human Morality & Sociality: Evolutionary & Comparative Perspectives, Henrik Høgh-Olesen (Ed.), Palgrave MacMillan, New York, pp. 91-234.
    9. Tomasello, M., & Vaish, A. (2013). Origins of Human Cooperation and Morality. Annual Review of Psychology, 64(1), 231-255.

This article is from TVOL’s project titled “This View of Morality: Can an Evolutionary Perspective Reveal a Universal Morality?” You can download a PDF of the project [here], comment on this article below, or comment on the project as a whole in the Summary and Overview.

Published On: May 17, 2018

Mark Sloan

Mark Sloan

Mark Sloan is TVOL Morality Topic Associate Editor. He is a retired aerospace engineer with degrees in physics and engineering. His main interest is how insights from the science of morality might be made culturally useful. This effort necessarily spans relevant science and moral philosophy. In particular, he is interested in morality’s ultimate source, morality’s strange bindingness quality, and why and how societies might choose to apply insights from science to refine their moral codes to better meet human needs and preferences. His blog is scienceandmorality.com.



  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    Mark–First, I want to thank you for suggesting this theme and for playing a lead role in organizing the collection of commentaries. We all owe you a debt of gratitude!

    Having recently read and remarked upon the other commentaries, what strikes me about yours is the contemporary need for everyone to reflect upon and change their moral systems. This has not necessarily been the case in the past. Indeed, as numerous commentaries have stressed, moral systems are often conceptualized as eternal and unchanging. It is easy to understand why this might be so from a functional perspective, but it poses a barrier to getting people to reflect upon and change their moral systems.

    Another way of putting this is that as products of genetic and cultural evolution in past environments, almost all current moral systems are mismatched to our current environment, which calls for global cooperation. We must therefore evolve new moral systems that expand the moral circle to include the whole earth and coordinate all activities with the welfare of the whole earth in mind. This need not require lower-level self-sacrifice. The benefits can exceed the costs and can be distributed across all levels. Elinor Ostrom has written eloquently on this point using the rubric of “polycentric governance”, which can also be understood in evolutionary terms as multi-cellular society.

    Is an “Whole Earth” morality possible? Not only is it psychological possible, but it has already been adopted by many people. We are so flexible in how we draw our moral circles that it is not a stretch to think of the whole earth as a single group. Terms such as “spaceship earth” establish the appropriate frame immediately. The challenge, of course, is how such a narrative can organize appropriate actions.

    I intentionally wrote “moral systems” in the plural because there can be many, as long as they converge on the moral ideal of global cooperation. This is already taking place to a degree: for example, the Pope’s “Our Common Home” encyclical and the Dali Lama’s book “Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World”. There is already an “Interspiritual” movement that is described in two TVOL articles listed below.

    Then there is the question of how these moral systems can increase from an initially low frequency, in competition with other moral systems that are less inclusive. I believe that this is possible if individuals form into small groups, which can be much more efficacious and personally fulfilling than acting on one’s own, and if the groups cooperate with each other. This is how religions such as Christianity have spread from an initially low frequency throughout history.

    One thing is for sure. We’ll never achieve a “whole earth” morality without mindfully going about it from an evolutionary perspective!

    “Evolution and the Coming Interspiritual Age: A Conversation with Kurt Johnson” ( https://evolution-institute.org/evolution-and-the-coming-interspiritual-age-a-conversation-with-kurt-johnson/ )

    “Steering Toward the Omega Point: A Roundtable Discussion of Altruism, Evolution, and Spirituality” ( https://evolution-institute.org/steering-toward-the-omega-point-a-roundtable-discussion-of-altruism-evolution-and-spirituality/ )

  • Hi Mark, I think that I have a better version of your universal moral principle: “Solve the cooperative/exploitation dilemma without exploiting others in your circle of concern.” Shouldn’t the solution be codified as the principle? My version is a version of Hobbes: “covenants without the sword are but words, with nothing to support a man. ” I would modify that to this version: “Agreements that are not collectively enforced are but words with nothing to support anyone.” I emphasize collective enforcement, after Boehm and Ostrom. Nomadic hunter gatherers enforce moral rules collectively. Owners of common pool resources commit to following and enforcing the rules, and have a strong sense of group identity, all of which help reinforce commitment. In the modern world we have farmed out many of the functions of morality to the police, and legal system. This make morality seem to be less of a collective involvement. I believe that collective enforcement is still there in most, if not all modern institutions, it’s just harder to perceive in larger, modern societies because it is partly unconscious and subliminal and it happens on a far larger scale. And the fact is that it’s there because we all feel it. We can feel what is wrong, because we usually need to be doing something about it.

    • Mark Sloan says:

      Hi Charles,

      Thanks for your comment. I have considered versions of “Solve the cooperative/exploitation dilemma without exploiting others in your circle of concern.”

      Restricting the principle’s applicability to “your circle of moral concern” implies that exploiting out-groups could be morally OK. This produces two major problems.

      First, potentially ‘moral’ exploitation of out-groups is contradictory to independently justified understandings of morality such as Oliver Curry’s “morality as cooperation” and the immorality of “harm” as proposed by several contributors here.

      Second, potentially ‘moral’ exploitation of out-groups prevents the principle from being “normative”, what all well-informed, rational people would put forward as universally moral (see the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Morality”). Showing a moral principle is normative is the holy grail of moral philosophy – though perhaps many philosophers would disagree with my version of the SEP’s definition of normative. The moral principle you describe can at best be descriptively moral and so, even if it is arguably “universal” in some sense, it is not the kind of normative moral principle that moral philosophers seek. (Descriptively moral behaviors in this case would be moral in one culture even though they exploited out-groups but immoral in another culture that did not exploit out-groups.)

      For these two reasons, leaving off the restriction “in your circle of moral concern” and thus leaving ambiguous who “others” refers to provides a more culturally useful moral principle. Consider how less culturally useful “Do to others as you would have them do to you” would be if it had the added phrase “if they are in your circle of moral concern”. The universal moral principle would be similarly compromised.

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